Claim: An old woman traveling in a car filled with relatives dies during a long journey. The surviving family members place her corpse on the car's roof rack, cover it with a tarp, and continue on. Upon reaching the nearest town, the family stops for a coffee and something to eat, leaving Granny's remains tied to the roof rack. They return to the parking lot to find their vehicle — and their dead relative — gone.
[Brunvand, 1981; collected 1963]
This story was told me by my cousin, who had heard it from a friend in Leeds, about a couple whom he knew, who went for a camping holiday in Spain with their car. They had taken his stepmother with them. She slept in a different tent to the others. On the morning that they struck [broke camp], they were very busy, and they didn't hear anything of her for a while, and then, when they went to her tent, they found she had died, and rigor had already set in. They were in a great state, and they didn't know what to do, but they decided to roll her up in the tent, and put her on top of the car, and go to the nearest town, and go to the consul and the police. So they did this, and went to the town, and then they felt very cold and miserable, and they hadn't had a proper breakfast. So they thought they'd get a cup of coffee to revive them, before they went in search of the consul. So they parked the car, and went to a small cafe, and had their cup of coffee, and then came back to look for the car. But it wasn't there. It had gone.
So they went home to England without the car or the stepmother. But the difficulty was, they couldn't prove [probate] her will.
It happened to a family friend as they were traveling across the desert to California. Within this station wagon there was a father, a mother and their children, and the mother-in-law who everyone called "Grandma." And as they were going across the desert Grandma became sick and she died. Now they didn't want to alarm the children and they didn't want to leave Grandma out in the desert so the only place they had room for her where she — her smell wouldn't bother the children — was to strap her on top of the station wagon along with the baggage with a tarp over her, of course. And as they were traveling across the desert they kept looking for a town where they could deposit Grandma. They finally arrived in a small town in Arizona where they stopped at a filling station and they went in to report Grandma's death. And while they were within the filling station somebody stole the station wagon and when they went out — no station wagon and no Grandma! Well, it wasn't very funny even though it sounds like it because they have to wait seven years now to prove that Grandma is dead before they can collect any insurance. And they've never been able to find either the car or Grandma. This actually happened.
They couldn't leave Grandma out in the desert. Not only because — uh — it wasn't right to leave a body out in the desert but also for insurance and also to prove it wasn't murder and also to prove there was a body in any court proceedings.
[Healey and Glanvill, 1996]
There was a family from Surrey who decided to spend their vacation in France, taking their elderly grandma with them. Granny spent all their stay complaining. Well, not quite all of it, because a little way into the holiday, she died on them.
Deciding that the old woman would hate not to be buried in her beloved Blighty, the family set about returning her home, and, mindful of the customs and other problems they might face, they resolved to hide her. So they bought a cheap bit of carpet, and rolled the wrinkled little corpse up in it. Granny's body was by now too stiff to bend on to a car seat, so they had to strap her on the roof-rack. In this way she was driven across France for two days, through driving rain and baking sunshine, across the Channel by ferry, and finally all the way home.
Unhappily, having made it back without a hitch, the family were devastated when, after a well-earned cuppa, they went outside to find the car stolen — carpet, Granny and all. And they were never recovered.
European versions of this tale concentrate on the difficulties and
tensions involved in crossing international borders, while North American renditions rarely mention borders at all. The primary focus in American tales is the inconvenience of dear old gran's death.
Granny is the usual family member to kick the bucket, but every now and then some other elderly relative is called to glory.
Why the dead grandmother has to be transported anywhere is one of the story's details which is up for grabs — she dies in a remote area lacking a police station or a convenient mortuary, she kicks off in a foreign country, necessitating bringing her back across a border, or she had often expressed a wish to be buried in the family plot back home.
Wrapped in a blanket, sleeping bag, rug, tent, or bit of canvas, Gran is tied onto the car's roof rack. (In one odd telling, she's packed in dry ice in the canoe being carried aloft.) No one ever thinks to stuff her into the trunk.
The surviving members of the family either stop at a restaurant for a much-needed break, or leave the car parked in front of a police station while they go to report the death. Upon return, either all the luggage and paraphernalia they were carrying (including Granny) have been made off with, or the vehicle itself is missing.
Origins: Antecedents exist in traditional folklore for this legend, but the "dead granny" tale we know as an urban legend reached its present form during or shortly after WWII. Upon occasion, it will turn up in the newspapers, passed along as an incident that really
European renditions generally end with the family's discovery of the theft, a detail possibly related to why the body is being transported in the first place (usually out of filial desire to do right by the departed by bringing her home for proper burial). North American tellings, however, often end with the realization that inability to produce the body will lead to difficulty collecting the inheritance. In those versions, the corpse was being carted around the countryside usually only out of desire to dump it at the first appropriate spot.
Unlike the dead cat in the package legend, scant thought is given in this story to the thief's projected reaction upon discovering what he made off with. The focus stays upon the family's woes, first in having to transport the corpse, then in having to explain the theft to the authorities.
Folklorists have advanced differing theories about what lies at the heart of this legend: fear of the dead (without a proper burial, Granny may return to haunt her offspring), disgust with the elderly (at least now she's not sitting in the car), and distrust of authorities (fear of customs and border officials). It might be much simpler than all that.
Throughout the legend's numerous tellings, Granny is never once portrayed as loved and valued, someone whose loss is felt and indeed mourned. Those left to cope with her death treat her as a non-person — their major concern becomes what to do with the decaying body, not how to come to terms with the passing of someone deeply cared about. There's no sense of tears being shed; it's all bundle up the body and get rid of it. Even in the odd telling where mention is made of the family being thrown into a great state by the discovery of Granny's demise, the focus is on their shock at happening upon a death and having to deal with the question of what to do with a corpse, not upon their grief over the loss of a family member.
Figuratively a burden to the family during her life, Granny becomes a literal burden in death. Once deceased, she is dealt with in a manner reflective of how nuclear families often deal with their elderly — she's distanced from the vital center of the family and stashed out of sight. In reality, aging parents might be consigned to an old folks home wherein they receive a once-a-month duty call; in legend, the "burden" is packaged up for neat disposal and placed among the other baggage.
The twist at the end of the North American versions becomes stunningly appropriate under that analysis — the theft of the body causes a delay in the probate of Granny's will. Only a body to them in death, Granny has her revenge upon her cold-hearted relatives — the lack of that very body keeps them from inheriting what they thought should by rights pass to them.